When 18-year-old Alliance Shangwe was impregnated four years ago, she was not only forced to drop out of primary school but also had to encounter challenging changes within her family. Shangwe realized that her family had been “very disappointed”, and this came with veiled challenges. She recalls being stranded and “left to wander alone” with no income and status of her own. This was not easy seeing that her former classmates were completing primary school when she had already started childbearing at a very young age, and, yet, “to some extent, I always performed well in class, and my teachers expected me to be among the best.” After giving birth, Shangwe was introduced to the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS free and Safe (DREAMS) Program, a local initiative that seeks to reduce disproportionate HIV incidence and vulnerability among adolescent girls and young mothers. “We were not so many. But I had nothing with me, except my child. Under this initiative, we were grouped into small groups depending on the age band and arranged to regularly attend safe spaces’ sessions, and that allowed our mentor to speak and accord assistance respectively. Shangwe highlighted different benefits of being part of the DREAMS initiative, observing that she is just a single case among thousands of others who need the same support and empowerment. “First of all, this provides an emotionally and physically safe environment for us (girls and women) to come together to learn new skills, we also develop social networks, empower each other, and begin the healing process from the trauma we all experienced. Through safe spaces, our mentor educates us on sexual reproductive health and rights. And, besides this, I acquired life skills that enabled me to regain my self-esteem. Before I was enrolled in the program, as a teen mom, I was not sure of myself, and had no hope for the future; without confidence to achieve anything in my life. But after attending safe spaces, I have time to discuss with colleagues with the same challenges. We comforted each other, and rose up to start a new life full of hope as I was taught that I am valuable and capable.” “These spaces, to me, create an environment that provides a close relationship with trusted adults and peers and we also have meaningful relationships with trusted mentors that help to support us as we navigate what I think is a critical phase of our lives.” Shangwe, a resident of Mpanga cell in Nyanza District, is part of a group of over 13,000 adolescent girls and young women who are benefiting from the DREAMS program in the district. Funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the DREAMS program is being implemented in five districts of Rwanda by local non-governmental organizations including FXB Rwanda whose mission is “creating a world fit for children.” Under FXB Rwanda, the DREAMS initiative is implemented through Igire-Turengere Abana (loosely translated as Be Resilient and Let us protect the Children) Program reaching out to 26,781 adolescent girls and young women from Nyanza and Rwamagana Districts. “I joined this program in 2019, after failing to continue my academic journey,” said another beneficiary, Honorine Uwase. Uwase, 25, said her life took a bumpy turn when she lost her father and was unable to continue her education. “As a family, we spent almost all the money on my father’s treatment despite falling short of rescuing him. But when I joined DREAMS program safe space, there was relief, I joined different girls who had experienced similar challenges and for some, even worse. Today, we are taught how to save and also given access to small loans to support our different ventures.” Nyanza District is home to more than 57 safe spaces with over 100 mentors. Uwase and Shangwe testify that safe spaces have become more like a healing haven for them; considering the place as a conducive environment where they learn important tips for keeping them healthy and wealthy, and live free of HIV/AIDS. Positive parenting Under the DREAMS Program's interventions, parents also come together for positive parenting through the Family Matter Program (FMP). The program delivers sessions to parents and caregivers to enhance protective parenting practices associated with HIV risks avoidance and reduction among the youth by promoting parent-child communication about sensitive topics such as sex. The sessions enable the creation of a conducive and supportive environment for keeping children safe. It was realised that parents of Adolescent Girls and Young Women(AGYW) who attended FMP sessions are continuously fostering the knowledge and skills acquired in safe spaces with the aim of preventing HIV infection. The AGYW whose parents were part of FMP, had been showcasing an improved understanding of sex and had easily adapted to a safe space package. According to Aphrodice Ngirumugabo, warm and supportive parenting positively affects behavioral and psychological development in a child’s life. “We take lessons on how to approach things positively. This also builds our bond with the children. As fathers, we are normally hard on our children which is not the right thing to do.” “It should not be perceived as permissive parenting. Rather, I see it as an open channel for children and parents to connect where most of them will be happy to share their thoughts, their shortcomings, and any other things. My appeal is for the organizers, or the founders, to scale up such initiatives so that they can benefit more and more people.” Why it matters On January 31, the project’s partners conducted a joint visit to DREAMS Program activities implemented by FXB Rwanda in Nyanza District. For Emmanuel Kayitana, the Chief of Party for Igire Turengere Abana Program at FXB Rwanda, the field visit offered a platform for peer learning with fellow implementing partners, showcasing the achievements gained at the same time highlighting the challenges. “Following this visit, we are now requesting government for support in scaling up our activities and potentially owning some of them to be integrated into existing government structures.” Some of the initiatives, he added, have proven to be best practices and could potentially benefit a wider range of vulnerable young women in the country. “We look forward to having the government buy in such ideas.” Government weighs in Mireille Batamuliza, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, lauded the investment, after her tour, noting that the government “is more than ready” to work with partners that are aiming to address such challenges. She pledged government support in intervening to address the challenges identified following the visit. “As a ministry, we wish to work closely with our partners and visit some of their activities. This is a great initiative, and it is through such visits that we identify the missing links but also take note of the registered achievements.” “It is important that the family is looked at as a whole so that we don’t skip any step in helping these vulnerable children. For instance, if you are looking at an orphan; are they healthy or do they need medical assistance? Do they have any children? Are those children catered for, among others?” Beside safe spaces intervention, the DREAMS program serves the Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) Programme with a standardized package of community-based youth-friendly and clinical HIV prevention services, education subsidies, economic empowerment, positive parenting, and GBV prevention to reduce risks of HIV infection among them. For context, Rwanda’s HIV prevalence among adults has been relatively stable at 3 percent; remaining higher among women (4 percent) than it is among same-age men (2 percent) as noted in the 2020 Health Demographic Survey. Adolescent girls and young women are two times the population affected by HIV compared to young men in same age. Gender-based discrimination, violence, and some cultural and religious beliefs are among the factors that fuel the HIV epidemic and its effects on the group. The DREAMS Program is being implemented in line with PEPFAR’s strategic pillars and enablers mainly promoting health equity and sustaining response for priority populations.